So 2014 lies on its deathbed and gasps for air. I can’t say that I feel all that sad: In contrast to 2013, which let me fly high and as close to the sun as you possibly can without burning, 2014 let me crash and burn.
But it hasn’t been all bad. Yes, I have hurt a lot – both physically and mentally – but I have also learned a lot.
I hope. A friend of mine posted a link to a blog post about the misconception that experience automatically leads to greater wisdom. It is of course pretty obvious that experiences doesn’t teach us much if we don’t reflect upon what caused the experience and how we reacted to it, but I thought that the questions asked were pretty nice. So here are my reflections of the year that past and some thoughts for the future. Since I’m writing this to learn for myself it will be pretty centered around, well me. Sorry about that.
1. Where did I fail?
I failed to not go.
Nearly a year after our accident, I (via long discussions with Martin and Maria) have come to the conclusion that I, Maria and Martin should never have been on that mountainside in Kittelfjäll on the 16th of February 2014. The reason for why we should have decided to not go is a combination of many things. The two most important are: 1) we had never been on that particular aspect of the mountain and therefore had very limited information about the terrain (we had of course studied maps but the resolution on Swedish mountain maps is rough), 2) the weather situation, with relatively strong wind and snow, meant that we couldn’t evaluate the terrain above us properly.
Our mission on Feb 16th was to ski a line that we had spotted when we skied Borkan the day before. We knew that the main risk that day was related to wind slabs and heavy loadings of new (and wind transported) snow on weak layers. We therefore chose to do our ascent on a very low inclination ridge. During our ascent, we heard and felt several collapses in the snow pack that confirmed the unstable conditions. We did some quick tests on the side of the ridge (roughly 35 degrees inclination), got a settlement but no release. We decided to continue but to not go higher than the tree line and only ski very mellow terrain. As we got higher, and the inclination of the ridge increased, the whumpfs stopped. Some additional quick tests (no proper pits) did not produce any results. However, our initial mission seemed to risky as we didn’t know the terrain and we therefore decided to turn back.
At that time, we were standing at tree line with some cliffs and snow fields above us as I remember it. However, the poor visibility made it difficult to know exactly what the terrain looked like. I remember feeling very uneasy about having hanging snowfields above us. The inclination of the slope below us was mellow, but the alpine terrain above us was definitely avalanche terrain. Our plan B for the day was to ski an area further north on the same mountain. We had skied that side of the mountain many times before and knew that it was less exposed from above. To get to it, we could either traverse the mountain side or go down the way we came and then go up again. Due to the risk of remotely triggering snow fields above us, we decided to ski down instead of traversing. To not have to walk with our skis down, we (in spite of our initial decision to not traverse) traversed into an open snow field.
When Martin and I had walked a few meters onto that snow field, we remotely triggered a big avalanche above us. We were all caught. I broke both of my legs, a rib and got a fracture in my chin. Maria fractured and dislocated her femur. We were stuck on the mountain for over 4 hours. We were extremely lucky. We managed to contact friends who were with us within 40 minutes and they helped us keep calm and gave us warm tea. After hours of struggling, the mountain rescue team managed to get sleighs up to our location and brought us down. We survived.
As anyone who reads this can probably tell in a split second, we did numerous errors that day. The message of the whumpfs was loud and clear: we should never have gone as high as the tree line as this exposed us to steep alpine terrain from above. But our biggest failure that day was that we failed to not go. We should never have been on that mountain side. We should have decided to not go.
2. What did I learn?
I often feel like an infinitely risk averse coward. I usually ski under my ability – I go a bit slower, refrain from doing large drops and I am almost always the one who is least inclined to take a risk. But the experience in Kittelfjäll has proven to me that I too suffer from optimism bias, overconfidence and wishful thinking. In retrospect, I find it interesting that I talked so much about the risks as we skinned up the ridge that day, and that my conclusions were relatively correct, but that I still kept searching for signs of stability. I have learned that I sometimes use my analytical ability in the completely wrong way. I have learned that I may be risk aware enough to give up an epic but potentially risky run for a more mellow one, but that I’m not strong enough to give up a shitty run for the sake of safety. I have learned that I have become a bit deaf to my rational fear. I have learned that I probably need some hearing aid.
I have also learned how extremely vulnerable you are in the backcountry, even if you’re fairly close to civilization: even though we were only a few km from the ski resort in Kittelfjäll, we were stuck on that mountain for over 4 hours. But we were still lucky: although two of us had serious injuries, our injuries were not lethal. The temperature was relatively mild (just below freezing), we had friends who gave us warm tea, and our phones worked so that we could actually get help. In many cases, you are completely on your own out there.
I have learned the importance of carrying a first aid kit including serious painkillers in your backpack, and to never leave that blizzard blanket at home. On the 16th of February, we had one pill of Ibuprofen in one of our backpacks, and I had left my blizzard blanket in the car. Our chances to ease the pain of a dislocated femur fracture or to keep an immobile body sufficiently warm was therefore about zero.
I have realized how important it is to not only being able to evaluate the risk of that something bad might happen, but also to know what to do when shit happens: To know who to call and what to say, to know what to do when help cannot be reached in time. We were lucky that our phones worked at all, but we called SOS and failed to realize that they had no chance of knowing the terrain sufficiently well to understand our instructions. We should have called the ski resort or Maggan at Grönfjälls stugby as her daughter is head of the mountain rescue. We should have known who was in charge of the mountain rescue. We were lucky to get help, but I have learned that I need to know how to handle a fracture and other injuries in the backcountry when getting help is impossible or takes time. I have learned that I need to know how to stay alive and help others survive.
I have learned that healing at the age of 37 is a pain in the ass: when I did my 6 month check up and the x-ray still showed a small fracture on my tibia, the doctor told me that my leg had healed surprisingly well… nearly 11 months after the accident, I’m still not completely back on track. But I have also learned that a 37 year old body is still pretty damn fantastic: in some respects I am stronger today than I was before the accident. I have learned that the Swedish health care system is amazing: I got excellent care for almost no money at all. But I have also learned that doctors don’t know it all and that sometimes you have to find your own answers: no one understood why I couldn’t walk until I found Lars Andersson who discovered my torn ligaments.
I’ve realized that I’m perhaps even more stubborn than I thought: I was determined that I would ride my bike down mountains this summer, and I pushed my sorry little leg until I was able to do just that, but also that I’m horrible at coping with setbacks: when I was unable to walk after I had my screws removed, I fell into a well of self-pity and had a very hard time getting up again. I have learned that being in pain for a long time has made me extremely ego-centric and that I hate being self-centered. I have also learned that I wouldn’t have come very far without the help of friends and family.
And finally, I have learned that I have so much more to learn: about snow, about my mental errors, and about wilderness first aid.
3. What was my greatest accomplishment?
Not going mental and pushing on when everything felt pretty hopeless.
4. What moments was most memorable and why?
- Hearing and feeling that last and big whumpf, seeing that wave of snow coming at me. The feeling of being knocked down by that wave. Of branches hitting my face. Of the stillness when everything stopped. The fear when Maria did not respond at our first call. The terror of her pain.
- The intense feeling of relief when my mother called me and when I saw the trees getting filled with people. The feeling of complete safety in the sleigh ride down the mountain side. The warmth and skill of people in the Swedish health care system.
- Meeting Lars Andersson and finally learning how to walk
- Galloping on a single track through an Italian forest. Of screaming and crying out of sheer joy for the first time since the accident.
- Going back to Kittelfjäll in August and contemplating the mess that we created.
- Climbing Murtsertoppen with Maria and Martin 6 months after the accident
- The horror of finding out that a fascist party got over 10 % of the votes in the Swedish Parliamentary election in September
- Nailing the drop at Bygdsiljum bike park with Maria cheering by my side.
- Being able to ride my bike in the Sierras after all
- Learning that Malala Yousafzai got the Nobel peace price.
5. What are my fears?
I have many fears. I’ve always had many fears. I fear death, both my own and nowadays my parents’. I fear the future of the world, both in terms of climate change and in terms of wars and other stupid politics. I fear ignorance, both my own and others’. Sometimes I fear life. I fear falling in love, because that means becoming vulnerable to loosing people I care for.
This year, my main fears are very simple: I fear that my ankle will prevent me from skiing and that I wont be able to enjoy the backcountry in winter as much as I did before the accident. That my irrational fears will get in the way of my happiness. But at the same time, I fear that I will forget to listen to my rational fear, and fail to use it correctly.
6. What do I need to do more of?
Rehab I guess… :).
No but seriously, what do I need to do more of? I don’t know why, but I find this one of the hardest questions to answer. Perhaps because I’ve already said it above.
I need to do more learning: about snow, about my mental errors, about group dynamics, about first aid and evacuation in the backcountry. I also think that I need to listen more, and try to really hear what people have to say.
7. What do I need to stop doing?
- I need to stop evaluating my accomplishments relative to others’ and start evaluating them relative to my own ability and standards.
- I need to stop relying on others’ affirmation for my self-confidence, and start relying on my own.
- I need to stop saying “I’m so lousy at doing this and that” and start saying “Damnit, I’m going to work real hard to get better”.
- I need to stop feeling bad for not doing things and instead just do them.
8. What are 3 (hrm.. 4) goals that I want to accomplish next year?
- Get back on my skis and take them and myself back into the backcountry.
- Take that Wilderness First Aid course.
- Avoid being irrationally scared, and make better use of my rational fears.
- Think more of others and less of myself.
9. What will I do to achieve those goals?
Be patient. Work hard. Prioritize. Learn. Listen.
10. Is there anyone who deserves a big THANK YOU?
Outside of my own little world: the local and external medical personnel and other volunteers working with the Ebola epidemic in Liberia, Sierra Leone and other countries affected deserves our humble gratitude, as are the local and external people working in Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world to improve livelihoods. I am so immensely grateful that you do the work that I do not have the courage (or skill) to do.
Inside my own little world: Martin and Maria, thank you for surviving, I’m not sure I could have if you hadn’t. Mattias, Oskar, Martin, Linda, Johannes, and Desiree: I will always owe you my life for keeping us alive on the mountain and helping the mountain rescue team. The Kittelfjäll mountain rescue including volunteers, thank you for putting your selves at risk to get us down safely. You saved our lives. There is no thank you that feels enough for that.
Mom and Dad, thank you for not letting me carry your worries but instead offering me rock solid support, for being so strong (enough to carry a king sized bed down a winding stair, and enduring the stress of having a hungry hen as a daughter), and for just always being there for me. Sara, Anna, Mia, Jacke, Linnea, Cissi, Tryggve, Mad, Rickard, Anna, Peter, Sonja, Lennart, Jonas Bäckström, L-D and Lena, David and Clara, Olof, Karin U, Karin Å, Emil and all the folks at work, and to all of you that I have forgotten, thank you for being such good friends, for coming by giving me semlor and cake and food and most importantly a good laugh. I really needed it :). And thank you me, for sticking in there.
The past year has felt like being on a roller coaster. I have felt a bit sea sick at times, so I have to admit that I hope that next year will run a bit smoother. But then again, would I have 2014 undone? I don’t think so. The past year has taught me so many things that I would have missed if it had come out another way. So perhaps I shouldn’t say good riddance, but rather thank you.